Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review
When you take a story as delicate as The Lord of the Rings, with as much history as it has, when you decide to craft a game around it, you are always going to take a big risk. You not only have to create a story that appeals to fans of the franchise, but make it interesting enough to make players want to play through the game. So you can understand why I was hesitant about the game when they first told me that the story was 100% original.
The story is based on the events taking place in the northern regions of Middle Earth, coinciding with the main story of the Fellowship’s journey to destroy the ring. Though based off of the main story of J.R.R. Tolkien, the game takes more inspiration from the actual movie trilogy universe. War in the North focuses on another fellowship as they journey into the Northern region to take on the forces of Agandaur. This new trio of adventurers is comprised of *surprise, surprise* a man, an elf, and a dwarf. It's not exactly the biggest leap from the books, but let's be honest, would we have it any other way?
As it's supposed to be, the results of your actions in the North impact Middle Earth and the ultimate success of the Fellowship in their journey to Mordor. About halfway through the game, I found myself caring less about the characters and story. The problem is that these are all new characters to which we're not accustomed to in a plot that Snowblind has to convince us to care about. There's no real backstory behind the characters that make you want to succeed with them. The storytelling is bland, and the game failed to convince me that my success in the North would really make a difference. I found myself completing quests not because I wanted to to save Middle Earth, but because I was forced to.
Everything in The Lord of the Rings universe is grand, from the massive battles to the magnificent environments. War in the North does an excellent job capturing that feel. As you travel on your journey, you will visit locations from the movies and books like Bree, Rivendell, the Ettenmoors, and many places not even seen in the films. Snowblind Studios does a fantastic job capturing the open environments in which these grand encounters take place, though the environments are fairly linear. You are given some flexibility, but don't expect to stray too far off the path.
Throughout the game, you encounter some of the more famous faces of Lord of the Rings and can interact with them. In an attempt to give some backstory, the storytelling drags on. You are given some chance to interject your reactions through various responses, but ultimately, none of these have an effect on the story. The fact that Snowblind encourages you to press A for the first response to witness a more cinematic experience makes me wonder why they even included a player choice for responses.
As an action game, you may be tempted to rip and tear your way through levels, carelessly swinging your blade at foes. As tempting as that may be, this game requires some more strategy than that. Combat is a fine balance between blocking and counter-attacking, that when done right, will result in the ability to land critical blows and enter Hero Mode. Hero Mode allows you to rack up experience multipliers via combos and an eventual finishing blow highlighted by severed limbs. It will take some getting used to, but once you accept the concept of not freely swinging through levels, you'll grow to appreciate the balance.
Unfortunately, the gameplay experience is hindered by the lack of single-player functionality. Some of the very elements that that make this game so great in its multiplayer experience are frustrating when alone.
While combat is the highlight of the game, over the course of the game I found it to get repetitive and stale. The enemy encounters are drawn out, especially boss fights, due to the lack of intelligent AI. Where in multiplayer, you can communicate with humans and focus on certain targets, there is no simple way to do that in single-player. You’ll often find yourself soloing a boss while your party members are wasting time attacking the never-ending spawn of mobs. However, they do a very good job of reviving you when you are fallen. The fights are massive, as they should be. You will often find yourself outnumbered by hordes of orcs and trolls, which really lets you feel like a hero when you slay the very last one.
Remember, as an action game, you will be rewarded with the spoils of war, which War in the North does not skimp out on. You will find an abundance of drops, which you can sell or equip. While equipping the armor on your own character is fine, getting it over to your party is not as easy. Yes, you can “trade” the item to your party member, and if they are an NPC they will auto equip it. But there is no way to tell if what they have on is better than what you’re giving them. You can’t simply look at what they have on and compare the items. It’s not game-breaking, but it’s frustrating to have to wait until you are controlling that character – and then having to play through the level as that character.
War in the North isn’t all about action, however. One of the key elements is the RPG leveling system, which allows you to adapt the characters to form the party of your choosing. Although each character in the trio, at their most basic stage, fills a different class commonly found in other games, the character’s class is adaptable thanks to a three tree leveling system. While they have their own special abilities, you can carefully mold them to fit your playstyle.
For example, Eradan the Ranger is similar to Aragorn, excelling with either blade or bow. He’s the equivalent of the “damage dealer” archetype. Being adept at using any weapon, he is the most versatile, and you can mold him to fit any fighting style you wish. If you wish to fight with a bow, you can level up his long-ranged ability tree. If you are more of a melee player, you can make him an expert with two-handed weapons, dual wielding, or sword and shield. Farin the Dwarf is the equivalent to the “tank”--very strong and focuses heavily on melee. Lastly, Andriel is the Elven Loremaster. As a master of magic, you can choose to build her around more offensive or defensive spells. If you’re not a fan of those, you can equip her with two swords at once. The possibilities of team comps are left pretty wide open, giving you the flexibility to create a character that is unique to your playstyle.
Unfortunately, this system can’t be fully appreciated in its single-player sessions. While each character does level up, specifically choosing their abilities must wait until you actually control the character, which is only made available to you after completing a level. There’s no quick or easy way to level up your party-mates.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a perfect example of a game that works well in theory, but falls flat in execution. Combat and leveling is fun, though the combat gets repetitive. The story is lackluster, not what one would expect on a Middle Earth adventure and the characters are dull. There's no doubt that when played in multiplayer, Lord of the Rings: War in the North is a much more fun play. Not having to worry about the skills or equipment of your party makes a tremendous difference, though it doesn't make the story any more intriguing.
Don't let the bad outweigh all the good that this game has to offer, though. Fans of the Lord of the Rings story might find themselves slightly disappointed with the story, but should appreciate the work put into the breathtaking environments. Fans of action/RPG games will be quite pleased as War in the North offers a good amount of customization, from appearance to abilities. The game is a fun play, especially with friends. While this game could've easily been a disaster, especially given the delicate nature of The Lord of the Rings stories, Snowblind Studios has managed to create a game that successfully combines the LOTR universe with a custom story.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]